Tuesday, June 30, 2009

University Presses

Thomas Bacher, director of the University of Akron Press, has a brief essay in Inside Higher Education, where he discusses some of the challenges facing university presses. He acknowledges that the Internet and “digital information networks” “have made the printed book less important. Bacher argues for expanding university press publishing into disciplines “driving the current educational and research enterprises” (such as “science, engineering, technology”) and to connecting university presses “with the strengths of their home institutions.” He wants university presses to “become part of the new information infrastructure of the university,” and while he does not see the end of the printed book he also does not believe that the traditional book can be the primary answer or service offered by the university press. Personally, I do not believe that we, the university and its academic units like professional schools, have ever exploited the value of the book (whether in printed form or digital venue). There is a vast literature, offered by many disciplines, about the relevance (usually concluded to be, at best, a mixed bag) of their research and scholarship for public policy and public knowledge. Bacher hints at this very issue when he writes: “I had a recent conversation with a prominent engineering dean. He wanted to know why I was visiting, since his faculty was intent on getting published in Elsevier journals. I wasn’t the least bit surprised, but did mention perhaps some of his faculty might write “little books” on very narrow subjects. Basically, these books would be an extension of an existing journal article or an adaptation of class notes with the purpose of covering a topic, but keeping in line with the way faculty communicate in those fields. He thought the idea might work, but reminded me that his faculty was immersed in teaching and research, so that finding spare time for an endeavor that had negligible tenure impact would be hard.” I wish he would have commented more on this. What about all those faculty who have tenure? What about the historic mission of the university to contribute knowledge to society? You can find his article, “Books Aren’t Everything,” at http://www.insidehighered.com/layout/set/print/views/2009/06/30/bacher

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